Lee Commission Chair Roland challenged by former judge Wheaton

Former Lee County Co-county Manager Mike Sistrunk is asking for more than $560,000 in damages and that Lee Commissioner John Wheaton resign as part of a settlement that would preclude a lawsuit against the county.

LEESBURG – Former Lee County Co-county Manager Mike Sistrunk is asking for more than $560,000 in damages and that Lee Commissioner John Wheaton resign as part of a settlement that would preclude a lawsuit against the county.

As part of the process in a potential lawsuit against individual Lee County Commissioners or the entire Board of Commissioners, an Ante Litem notice was received by members of the Lee County Commission this week. This notice relates to statements regarding Sistrunk previously reported by the Albany Herald and outlines the demands made on his behalf to resolve his claims against Lee County.

Those demands include:

1. The payment of an amount equal to what Mr. Sistrunk will lose in salary over nine years prior to his retirement age, to wit $280,405.08.

2. An additional amount of $280,405.08 to compensate Mr. Sistrunk for the harm to his reputation and the resultant embarrassment, humiliation, and mental anguish caused him by the lies told by Commissioner (John) Wheaton.

3. That John Wheaton resign his office as Lee County Commissioner.

4. That John Wheaton give a statement under oath that he will not again run for public office in Lee County.

5. The Lee County Board of Commissioners issue, without qualification, and without any comment or indication to the contrary, an apology and retraction in basically the following form (and said final form must be agreeable to Mr. Sistrunk).

The apology laid out by Sistrunk’s attorney, Louis Hatcher of the Albany-based Watson Spence law firm, reads:

The Lee County Board of Commissioners regrets that one of its members, John Wheaton, made false allegations against former Co-County Manager Mike Sistrunk. Those allegations were made in the March 3, 2021 edition of the Lee County Ledger and in the March 7 and/or 8, 2021 edition(s) of the Albany Herald. All of the allegations made by Mr. Wheaton with respect to Mr. Sistrunk were false, were intended to harm Mr. Sistrunk, and did harm him, both professionally and personally.

Mr. Wheaton’s comments were ratified and adopted by the Lee County Board of Commissioners, despite those allegations being known by all of the Lee County Commissioners to be false and to be per se defamatory. The Lee County Board of Commissioners admits that there is not, and never has been, any documentation or other evidence to corroborate or substantiate the allegations, and that the purported discussion relating to Mr. Sistrunk never occurred.

The Lee County Board of Commissioners apologizes to Mr. Sistrunk, his family, friends, and co-workers, and to the citizens of Lee County, Georgia, for violating our fiduciary duties to Mr. Sistrunk and to the citizens of Lee County. We will take steps to ensure going forward that our board members understand their fiduciary obligations and that they must put aside their personal feelings and perform their duties in a professional, honest and mature manner.

The Ante Litem notice also demanded that the apology “must be published in the form of full-page ads in the primary sections of both the Lee County Ledger and the Albany Herald, and said publication must occur within 14 days of the execution of a settlement agreement between Mr. Sistrunk and Lee County.”

In the notice, Hatcher wrote that “Wheaton’s publishing the libelous and defamatory statements about Mr. Sistrunk not only caused him irreparable injury to his personal and professional reputation,” but also that “Wheaton’s decision to malign Mr. Sistrunk has, as was intended by the Lee County Commission, tarnished Mr. Sistrunk’s reputation and impeded his opportunity for other avenues of employment.”

Hatcher referenced the response of the members of the Lee County Board of Commissioners in regard to a letter he sent to each member of the board on May 7, basically asking if they supported the statements made by Wheaton as the official position of the Lee County Board of Commissioners.

“Only Commissioners (Rick) Muggridge and (Luke) Singletary responded,” the notice reads. “The other three commissioners, in keeping with their lock-step voting habits, chose to abide in cowardly silence and not respond, and, representing the majority of the Commissioners, have therefore adopted and ratified the statements of Wheaton that were set forth in the May 7 letters, and confirmed that Wheaton spoke in both his individual and official capacities.”

The Herald sought comments from Wheaton, Mathis and Hatcher on the notice, but only Hatcher responded before the newspaper’s deadline.

“As I have stated before, I am a long-time resident of Lee County; I love Lee County, and I have served its citizens in many capacities over the past 20-plus years,” Hatcher said. “What I do not love is the current dysfunctional leadership that refuses to govern in a proper manner and fails to treat our Lee County employees with due respect. Those employees need someone who will stand up to the authoritarian and retaliatory management style that is causing morale issues and interfering with the folks who best know how to do their jobs.

“I still hope to resolve this matter sooner rather than later, and without filing a lawsuit, but we cannot resolve the real issues without an acknowledgement from our county leaders that defaming and retaliating against hard-working and honest employees is unacceptable, and an acknowledgement that Mike Sistrunk is owed an unqualified public apology.”

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